Christmas 2021 is just two weeks away. After two years of pandemic concerns and lockdowns, we are attempting to get back to some semblance of normality, despite the fact that we are still bombarded by reports of supply chain issues, inflation, and politically motivated news stories that keep our anxiety alive and well - and of course, another COVID variant to brighten our days.
But let's put all this aside, just for a bit, and try to find some solace in the holidays. After all, this is the time to enjoy family, friends, and, as they say in the best banal fashion, the "reason for the season". Along with the hustle and bustle of shopping and parties comes some of the finest Christmas movies ever made - 1946's classic "It's a Wonderful Life", 1938's "A Christmas Carol", and who can forget the 1947 hit, "Miracle on 34th Street", however, there is one movie for me that rises like cream to the top of unpasteurized milk. A movie so special that I can watch it over and over and find another life lesson every time. That movie is "A Christmas Story". Please indulge me as I share my own personal history with this movie.
It was December 1985
Some thirty-five years ago I was making my first of many annual business trips to the west coast and then onto Asia. My first stop was always California, then Hawaii, on to Japan, then Philippines, Guam, and back again – a trip lasting nearly a month, allowing me to make it home just in time for Christmas. I was much younger then with small children at home and traveling so far was not ideal but it was a part of my profession at the time and it paid the bills.
Getting into the holiday mood was difficult while being on the road, especially in areas where tropical conditions and thundering downpours replaced the snow and cold. It just didn't seem right. During these trips, Manila was the operating base of my work and although it was decorated for the season, temperatures in the mid-eighties and high humidity were just not conducive to feeling the Christmas spirit.
My business took me to many of the islands in the Philippine chain, including Luzon, Mindanao, Cebu, and more, with the only white Christmas to be had there were the pristine alabaster sands on the beaches. I recall staying in a well-regarded hotel that featured small lizards crawling on the walls of my shower and upon complaining, was asked if I would rather be sleeping with biting insects. Choices, as they say.
These trips also took me to Tokyo, where the weather was much more holiday-like and on one occasion I even experienced a heavy snowstorm. The locals did celebrate the trappings of Christmas, like shopping and light displays, even though most are Buddhist or Shinto. But even then, my first trip was one of being homesick. It just didn’t seem like the holidays.
The Flight Home
At the end of the trip, I was boarding my flight in Tokyo and preparing to return to the states. It was now mid-December and I had missed Thanksgiving and most of the build-up to Christmas Day. We were flying directly to the west coast on a “red-eye” flight and then on to New Jersey. Normally, I would read but it was dark and I chose to watch the movie and hopefully fall asleep during the long flight home.
Settling in, I plugged in my earphones for the entertainment. According to the onboard brochure, they were showing A Christmas Story. Up to that point, I had never heard of it and was turned off by the name and the fact that it was made in 1983. I mean, it was two years after the fact and now I was first hearing about it? Meh!
I remember thinking, what movie of any worth about Christmas was made after the 1950s? They could have shown any classic movie, but a movie from 1983 -- Bah Humbug! I'd rather sleep.
As the opening credits rolled, things got even worse – Darren McGavin as one of the stars, how good could this flick be? This was a guy who had an ill-fated TV series called Kolchak where he was a reporter chasing vampires, and now, he’s in a Christmas movie? But, don’t judge a book by its cover, or in this case, a movie by its opening credits. And now, nearly four decades later, A Christmas Story has become a part of my holiday season for so many reasons -- reasons that seem to change as I get older.
A Cast for the Ages
For those who haven’t seen it, the story centers around a nine-year-old named Ralphie, who longed for a Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200 shot Range Model air rifle, politically incorrect today but perfectly acceptable at that time.
Ralphie was played by Peter Billingsley, who was already a successful child actor in commercials in New York in the 1970s. According to the movie’s director, he auditioned some 8000 kids for the role and settled for Billingsley, who in retrospect seemed to be an obvious choice.
Then came Darren McGavin, the “old man” as he was called, who was always grumpy, gruff, and spewed obscenities like there was no tomorrow. In real life, McGavin's own life experiences prepared him for the role. He was kicked out of his house by his parents when he was a teen and forced to scrape by to make a life for himself. His portrayal of the hard-boiled old man came easy and was believable to the audience. And in the end, this ornery old cussing cur was proven to actually have a heart after all.
Melissa Dillon was the mother, married to the old man, and following behind him trying to clean up his messes. Dillon, for those who don’t know, was also a starring character in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
A Reflection On My Life
Throughout the movie, characters and situations were introduced that reflected back on our own childhoods (for those of my age and even today). In fact, the narration throughout reminded me of the 1960s radio plays called “Mystery Theater”, which I listened to on radio station WEST-AM in Easton, Pennsylvania. This movie was certainly no Miracle on 34th Street, it was better, much better...because it hit home.
"What A Christmas Story had that other movies did not was a sense of nostalgia -- that carries over to today. It was the craziness of my family. It was all of our Christmases and all of our families!"
What A Christmas Story offered that the other movies did not was a sense of joyful and oft times embarrassing nostalgia, a feeling that returns no matter how many times it is viewed. As I sat on that plane, thousands of miles from home, the situations that Ralphie and the family experienced had the same themes as those with which I grew up. It was funny, uncomfortable in a comforting sort of way, and poignant. It was Christmas at my house. It was the craziness of my family. It was all of our Christmases and all of our families!
When the "old man" won his coveted “leg lamp”, it reminded me of my own father’s holiday treasure – the Bradford Snow Maker, a machine that guaranteed everyone a "white Christmas" (and one which invoked more swears from my mother than I knew existed at the time).
This contraption consisted of a huge green cardboard base with a hollow green tube that stretched up the trunk of the tree to an Angel tree topper. A small suction machine in the bottom sucked small Styrofoam particles up and blew them out onto the tree, in an errant attempt to portray snow falling gently through its branches. It was wonderful in theory but did not work as advertised.
Although the “faux snow” came flying out, there was nothing gentle about it. It was poorly thought out when